Imagine complaining you are a victim of “cancel culture”—from the floor of the House of Representatives, no less—and then the very next day holding a packed press conference covered by every single major news outlet. Or wearing a mask with the word “CENSORED” on it while you deliver fully uncensored remarks to millions of broadcast television viewers. This is how Marjorie Taylor Greene—the first lady of political thea-tuh who tweeted about suffering the “slings and arrows” of a “vicious cancel culture mob”—has spent her time in office so far. In the rare moments between her anti–“cancel culture” rants on high-profile right-wing podcasts and TV shows, the Georgia representative posts incessantly about just how canceled she’s been to her social media audience of more than 735,000 followers.
Greene and the entire right wing are currently using “cancel culture” in the same way Rudy Giuliani used to deploy “a noun, verb and 9/11”—as a handy-dandy phrase to inoculate themselves from wholly valid criticism. (Rhetorically, “political correctness” is its more direct predecessor, but then Black Twitter invented the term “cancel” and white conservatives decided that, like everything else, they just had to have it.) The current ubiquity of the phrase belies its central thesis, since all the airtime and column space conservatives are given to talk about cancellation proves they were never cancelled in the first place.
Ted Cruz claimed at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference that liberals have canceled stand-up comedy, and “Judge” Jeanine Pirro called the shutdown of white supremacist safe-space Parler a “censorship that is akin to a Kristallnacht.” The theme of this year’s CPAC, by the way, was “America Uncanceled” (though even organizers canceled one of their speakers), and the Republican National Committee last summer actually issued a resolution that stated: “Freedom of speech is trampled on daily with the notions of ‘political correctness,’ the plan to eliminate so-called ‘hate speech,’ and the promotion of a ‘cancel culture,’ which has grown into erasing of history, encouraging lawlessness, muting citizens, and violating free exchange of ideas, thoughts, and speech.”
Republican Senator Josh Hawley claimed his loss of a book deal because he voted to overturn a democratic election and helped incite a treasonous insurrection was an assault on his First Amendment rights, writing, “I will fight this cancel culture with everything I have. We’ll see you in court.” (Hawley got a new publisher roughly two weeks later and hasn’t mentioned the lawsuit since.) Jim Jordan, another House GOP “Stop the Steal” booster, called cancel culture—not Covid, escalating white-supremacist terror, or sexual abuse of college athletes during his time as a campus coach—the “most dangerous” issue in the country, and cited Donald Trump’s being kicked off Twitter for inciting the Capitol insurrection as proof that cancellation will cause “long-term consequences to our democracy.”
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These are laughable concerns from those who tried to cancel millions of black people’s votes in the last presidential election, and whose party is now cranking out literally hundreds of voter suppression laws to cancel Black people’s voting rights. It’s also a perfect illustration of the bait-and-switch tactic underlying all the phony Republican hysteria fueling so-called cancel culture. Conservatives’ indignation is really just anger over the fact that marginalized folks—mostly thanks to social media—can now call them out for all the things they regularly say and do to further racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic agendas and white mob violence. What these put-upon conservatives are really pissed about isn’t censorship or cancellation. It’s consequences.
Or rather, they’re against consequences for themselves. When they were the ones doing all the canceling, the right wing was actually fervently pro-cancellation. It’s not just the fundamental lie of “cancel culture” that’s so irritating, it’s the staggering hypocrisy of those who can’t stop, won’t stop whining about it. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, in a tizzy over the discontinuation by the estate of Dr. Seuss of six lesser-known books with racist content, had the audacity to gripe via social media that “the woke mob” is trying “to erase our history and cancel anyone who disagrees.” This is the same Tom Cotton who wrote a whole legislative act aimed at banning schools from teaching the 1619 Project, the initiative exploring how the United States was indelibly shaped by slavery—or what Cotton blithely describes as “the necessary evil upon which the union was built.” Cotton is not concerned about the censoring of history; he’s just picky about what parts of history get erased. What the Arkansas senator really means when he gets prickly about preserving “our history” is making sure the mythical white-supremacist recollection of American events is the only version schoolkids can read. Along with racist Dr. Seuss books, of course.
There is an historic thread tying right-wingers who today call everything left of them communism, who label anti-racist and social justice movements like BLM terrorism, and the anti–civil rights racists and red-baiting McCarthyite “traditionalists” of yesteryear. You want to know who was actually canceled by these sorts? Abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay, who was ordered by a court to stop printing his abolitionist newspaper The True American, had all his printing machines stolen by an angry racist mob, and was twice the target of attempted assassinations. Callie House, mother of five and a formerly enslaved woman who fought for reparations for emancipated black folks, who was railroaded on phony mail fraud charges in 1917 and served a year in the Missouri State Penitentiary. Labor leader and Socialist Party Chair Eugene Debs, who spent more than two years in jail for a 1918 anti-war speech.
There was also Paul Robeson, who had his passport revoked by the US State Department for his political beliefs and was forced to spend more than a decade living abroad. Racism and red-scare hysteria also canceled the acting career of Canada Lee, who was blacklisted from movies and died broke in 1952 at the age of 45. The song “Mississippi Goddam” got Nina Simone banned from the radio and much of the American South, and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics essentially hounded Billie Holiday to death for the sin of stubbornly refusing to stop performing the anti-lyching song “Strange Fruit.”
But really, we don’t even have to look that far back in time for examples of right-wing cancellation. All these self-deputized anti–“cancel culture” cops were, just a few years ago, openly in favor of canceling NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled—instead of sitting, on the advice of a former Green Beret—during the national anthem to protest police brutality against black folks. When right-wingers attempted to paint Kaepernick’s protest as an un-American insult to the military, he reiterated his respect for the “men and women [who] have fought for this country,” and underscored the need for America to stand by the principles it claims to send citizens to wage wars over.
“They fight for freedom. They fight for the people. They fight for liberty and justice for everyone,” Kaepernick said way back in August 2016, just days after his first silent protest. “That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody.”
What’s more traditionally American than black folks’ peacefully protesting as a way to demand that this country actually fulfill its promise of “freedom and justice, liberty to everybody”? In response, the people who now won’t shut up about being shut down —those who Debs, in the speech that got him jailed, rightly described as those “wrapped up in the American flag, who shout their claim from the housetops that they are the only patriots, and who have their magnifying glasses in hand, scanning the country for evidence of disloyalty”—were very keen on canceling Kaepernick for exercising the First Amendment rights they now claim to cherish. That group was led by Trump, who pushed hard to have Kaepernick fired. In a now infamous 2017 speech, the then-president targeted “NFL owners”—an overwhelmingly Republican collective of billionaires—and essentially demanded that when a player knelt in protest, they should throw “that son of a bitch off the field right now.”
The NFL kowtowed to Trump, decreeing that players who did not stand during the anthem would be fined. Not quite satisfied, Trump doubled down on his cancellation demands, saying, “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there, maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.” Two years after getting Kaepernick and NFL safety Eric Reid effectively blackballed from their careers for exercising their constitutional rights, Trump claimed that “cancel culture, driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees,” is “the very definition of totalitarianism.”
Marjorie Taylor Greene applauded Trump’s condemnations, posting social media messages alternately demanding “NO KNEELING” and thanking Trump “for pushing” the kneeling issue. The website Law Enforcement Today quoted her describing Kaepernick as a “destructive vocal influencer.” (Notably, when one of Greene’s conservative allies complained of censorship, Greene did a 180, tweeting, “You shouldn’t have to stop speaking the truth and posting about your political beliefs in order to continue your work…. And you are guaranteed free speech by the 1A!”) Cruz told his followers they should cancel rich spoiled athletes who “dishonor our flag” by committing to “never buy another shoe, shirt, or jersey.” Pirro called NFL protests for social justice “crap” and when Kaepernick sued the NFL for collusion, went on TV to loudly shout that Kaepernick didn’t “have a right to be in the NFL.” Yes, the woman who compared Trump’s Twitter ban to a Nazi pogrom against the Jews had the gall to demean Kaepernick as “a crybaby.”
Those calls to cancel Kaepernick, juxtaposed against the bogus concerns about “cancel culture” now coming from the same quarters, prove what was always painfully obvious: White conservatives don’t want free speech; they want to speak hate without repercussions. The most salient American conservative value is cultural dominance, and these people resent the cultural shifts they perceive as threatening that dominance. For so long, they took pleasure in canceling folks for challenging their power, punishing dissenters by ruining reputations, careers and lives. Now, they’ve seized upon the word “cancel” to describe the comparatively mild discomfort of being held vaguely accountable by the people they believe should shut up, and put up with the pain they actively seek to cause. The anti–“cancel culture” movement runs on resentment and fear—of the democratization of social authority and influence, which they believe whittles away at their position as the arbiters of morality, justice, and freedom—virtues they have always defined in transparently narrow, self-serving terms. I’m not sure I’ve seen a better encapsulation of what cancel culture is about than just after the white-supremacist Capitol coup attempt, when The Nation contributor Andrew McCormick described one participant’s rage over facing consequences she obviously regarded as meant for other people.
“This is not America,” a woman said to a small group, her voice shaking. She was crying, hysterical. “They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.”
The sad part is, their powers almost fully remain intact. They’re just too greedy to recognize it.
Consequently, we get Tomi Lahren— the right-wing bullhorn whose entire career is such an unendingly tired and badly argued hot take about Kaepernick that she should have to pay him royalties and residuals from every paycheck—having the unmitigated nerve to call cancel culture “deadly and unAmerican.” Lahren has spent the last several months calling for conservatives to use cancel culture to cancel cancel culture, a plan demonstrating a stunning lack of vision or originality. What she means is that the right should keep perfecting the very thing they invented. Even as they complain of being victimized by it.